Sunset Boulevard (Paramount) is a story of Hollywood, mostly at its worst, brilliantly told by Hollywood at its best. A daring film by ordinary movie standards, it is the last collaborative fling by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder* at a specialty they have made their own: playing hob with convention and getting away with it. It also brings Actress Gloria Swanson back to the screen, after a nine-year absence, in a performance that puts her right up in the running for the first Oscar of her 37-year career.
The shock effect of Sunset Boulevard is at least as high as that of such earlier Brackett & Wilder productions as the alcoholic Lost Weekend. The "hero" is a kept man, the leading lady a suicidal neurotic in her 50s, and their morbid liaison leads grimly on to madness and death. Manipulated less cleverly, the effect of these characters and their story would be oppressively decadent, not to say censorable. Indeed, for all the film's finesse, it may leave some moviegoers with a bad taste in their mouths. Yet, without sentimentalizing the characters or condoning their transgressions, the movie makes them believable, pathetic and, in a horrible way, steadily interesting. Around them, Producer Brackett and Director Wilder create a vividly atmospheric, sardonically observed Hollywood.
A young hack scripter (William Holden), broke, desperate, and pursued by his creditors, ducks his car up a Sunset Boulevard driveway and blunders into an eerie survival of an extinct world. In the moldering, overgrown grounds he finds a mausoleum-like Hollywood mansion, circa 1921, intact to the last monstrous detail. It is inhabited by two living relics: Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a great star of the silent movies, still wealthy, with an arrogant grandeur once rooted in fame and now propped by delusion; Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), once a great director (which Von Stroheim was), now her devoted servant and the dedicated guardian of her self-centered daydream.
Holden becomes a pawn of Norma Desmond's ruthless obsession: to regain her lost glory both as an actress and a woman. In need of a haven and money, he is maneuvered into joining the menage when she offers him the job of patching up the terrible scenario she has written for her comeback as Salome. Weak and reluctant, but never reluctant enough, he stays on as her gigolo.
Neither he nor Cecil B. DeMille (urbanely played by Cecil B. DeMille), to whom she brings the script, can bring himself to puncture her confident illusion that her return to the screen is imminent. While she undergoes a strict course of beauty treatments in preparation for her triumph, Holden sneaks away regularly to collaborate on his own script with a good friend's fiancée (Nancy Olson), a reader at Paramount. He and the girl fall in love. But by that time, he has become so enmeshed in the Sunset Boulevard snare that he cannot escape.